The issues surrounding rural broadband coverage are many and I have been involved in studying them even prior to the formation of FirstNet. In fact, the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) used the lack of broadband coverage in congressional districts to convince some senators and representatives that by voting for what became FirstNet they would become heroes in their districts because their rural populations could then be served with broadband. In a Senate hearing on FirstNet in June of 2016, the Chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee, Senator Wicker (R-MS), made it clear that rural coverage was a concern to him and other members of Congress.
In the FirstNet request for proposal Section J-1 Coverage and Capacity Definitions, FirstNet defined the coverage areas and types of coverage. In another section of the RFP, FirstNet required those responding to partner with and use rural carriers to help achieve the coverage goals. Now that AT&T has been awarded the contract and the state plans are being evaluated before becoming finalized, there are many questions regarding Public Safety coverage in rural areas of the United States. However, FirstNet and AT&T, like the rest of the organizations and groups pushing for broadband coverage in rural areas, seem to be going it alone. My view of the rural coverage issues is that until and unless there is synergy between all of the disparate programs and funding sources, Rural America will remain mostly underserved.
The Rest of the Story (Apologies to Paul Harvey)
While FirstNet and AT&T are working with the states and the states are reviewing state plans, especially the coverage element, there are literally dozens of other federal agencies, states, organizations, and groups that are approaching rural broadband coverage from a number of different angles. The Executive Branch, House and Senate, FCC, Department of Commerce and NTIA, Department of Agriculture, and others are pushing for rural broadband services and, in many instances, have money to help make it happen.
Meanwhile, a number of states that started their rural broadband improvement activities during the SBI-BTOP era have re-started their programs and some have even allocated funds to be used either to deploy broadband or as matching funds for one or more of the many federal grant programs that are available. Other states have already provided fiber routes to key locations near rural areas and have made this high-speed highway available to local companies that want to extend it to cover rural areas. The bottom line is there are grants, agencies, and organizations dedicated to providing broadband in rural America. However, there is zero coordination between the various organizations and locals are not onboard because they have heard it all before. Nothing appears to be happening any differently this time around.
Over the past few months, I attended a meeting held locally by the NTIA’s Broadband USA program and another held by a state that is actually moving forward with planning, funding, and a desire to make rural broadband happen in its state. The sessions were great and the people are dedicated, but in both meetings, I was the first one to ask if in addition to the fiber, fiber, and more fiber programs they were touting, they realized radio is often less expensive, easier to deploy, and can provide many benefits. In one instance the audience applauded my comments, and I hope those running the meeting will follow up with the rural wireless providers who were in attendance. In another instance, one wireless operator was already providing wireless broadband to rural areas but could not run fiber to a mountain top. I asked if he had asked the fiber company if it had the ability to transition to point-to-point microwave to make the hop to the top of the mountain.
The issue with rural broadband for both public safety and citizens who do not have access to it is that it costs a lot to deploy and to manage and operate on a monthly basis. Grants are great for starting projects and building them but there also has to be a way to make them self-sustaining after the grant money is gone or the feds decide to end-of-life a program such as the FCC’s lifeline. I am confident this is possible to accomplish but it will take cooperation among and between a number of different parties and involvement on a local level. We are currently working with a number of counties across the United States to bring about this cooperation and involvement.
Let’s look at the asset pool available for rural broadband but under the control of many different groups and organizations.
There is more fiber being put into the ground every day and there is fiber already available if owners are willing to share their fiber routes and provide pricing for others to use what is already in the ground. There are also initiatives designed so that new roadways when under construction will include laying in conduit for fiber. In one instance, the state DOT is putting in fiber along all of the Interstates while there are already other fiber networks running along the same routes. Further, there are some areas along an Interstate or highway where it would be more economical to use microwave shots. We need to stop thinking it has to be fiber and realize it can be fiber, microwave, or perhaps in the future, the low-earth-orbiting satellites (LEOs) currently being launched. As long as people are focused on one solution and, in this case the most expensive to deploy, the allocated funds won’t get the job done.
Wireless resources include long-distance point-to-point options to fiber deployment, and microwave systems can be used to take backhaul where it needs to go. Then there is fixed wireless to take broadband into homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and more (fiber to a school and then wireless outbound works, too). There are full-up cell sites for larger rural coverage areas, small cells for smaller areas, and a mix of perhaps small cell and mesh. The cost of wireless to cover a given rural area does not have to include a full-up cell site with a 200-foot tower, there are other options available. I probably should not mention this but some rural providers are using the concept of muni-Wi-Fi. I am not a fan simply because it is unlicensed spectrum and as such it is more prone to interference and other issues. Wireless for the middle mile, last mile, and last fifty feet makes sense. A number of vendors offer solutions that fit into one or more of these categories. All these forms of wireless should be considered part of the solution where it makes economic sense or the cost to run fiber is prohibitive.
Today most satellite systems are too slow and too costly to be able to provide broadband to an entire community. They can be used to provide coverage when needed in an emergency, but like small cell technology, satellite deployments are promising better and cheaper services in the future and might be a way to future-proof some deployments and to cover areas surrounded by National Forests or wilderness areas.
There is a long list of potential vendors. The four major network operators have not spent much time covering rural America since the financial models don’t work. However, there are a large number of smaller rural carriers and at least two rural carrier associations, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), and the Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), that represent many of these operators, some of which have relationships with the major carriers. There are also a large number of smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are providing local Internet access to an untold number of small areas within the United States.
Then there is the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (known as the “NRTC” by most of the industry) whose members are generally not included in the above list. The NRTC has provided rural carrier and power co-op members with telecommunications expertise for years and it is well respected. The current CEO served at least one term on the Board of Directors of FirstNet. I came to know the NRTC when I was consulting for them before FirstNet and I found that they have power co-ops serving rural America in 47 of the 50 states. Further, these rural power co-ops have right of ways, trucks for servicing their clients, and are the people who put DirecTV on the map in the beginning by selling and installing DirecTV systems to their customers. Rural co-ops want and need broadband for managing their power grid, wireless meter reading, and they would love to offer broadband service to their customers.
The Federal Government, States, and Counties
The federal government has, once again, woken up to the fact that our rural citizens do not have access to broadband. There have been comments and commitments from the White House and other Executive Branch offices, both the House and Senate, the FCC, and many others. DHS has been funding Land Mobile Radio for Public Safety for many years with grants, and I hope at some point in time their funding levels will be increased so they can include broadband services in their mix.
The states must be the key players. They have to revive their interest in hooking up their rural citizens to broadband and they have to make sure politics do not interfere with their effort. The issue with states (and feds) is that elections can change the entire course of a program very quickly. In this case it is important that rural broadband outlive those who set up the programs today.
Missing at the moment in most areas are county-level people whose counties will benefit when all the pieces and parts needed for the right solution based on the county and its population density, and other factors that will affect their ability to convince a vendor or two to invest in broadband for the county.
Fiber and Spectrum Resources
One of the nice things about rural coverage is that there is a mix of available resources that can be used to provide broadband coverage including fiber, microwave, point-to-point and fixed wireless and, of course, mobile broadband. The successful rural areas will be those that assemble the proper mix of agencies, funding grants, and necessary resources to provide broadband services. Our ongoing work with rural deployments has already shown that once county-level executives understand there are many pieces to the rural broadband puzzle, they can put them together in a variety of ways depending on the specific needs of the county or region.
Now FirstNet has a nationwide license for 20 MHz of prime 700-MHz spectrum (which provides great coverage and in-building penetration) and a mandate to provide rural coverage. AT&T already has assets in some areas, partners in others, the ability to work with even others, and the ability to obtain additional funding will result in coverage for the public safety community. Added benefits will be broadband to schools, hospitals, companies, and citizens of rural areas that do not have broadband today.
One of the things I heard in a recent state broadband meeting was that the state has been promoting rural areas with population centers to attract companies to a rural area. However, the stumbling block has been the lack of broadband services. Perhaps one result of all this focus on rural broadband is that after broadband has been deployed some companies that chose not to move will change their minds.
If there ever was a time to take broadband coverage into rural America it is now. The awareness level is high, funding, while perhaps not sufficient to complete the process, is enough to prove it can be done, which should lead to more funding. The stars, or should I say the Gigabits, are all aligned. There is a federal mandate to provide broadband to public safety so why not capitalize and expand this mandate to solve the broadband issue for citizens who live and work in these communities?
If anything will keep this from happening this time around, it will be politics (which seem to stand in the way of many things these days), and the unwillingness of vendors to work together to make this all come together and ensure that after the federal funding disappears the networks will remain in place, and will be expanded as needed. And of course, don’t forget those of us who live in major metro areas and are still waiting for fiber services or fiber to the street and wireless to the home!
Andrew M. Seybold
©2017, Andrew Seybold, Inc.